Guest Opinion: Renewable hydro generation and art deco architecture are Great Depression’s lasting legacy

By Susan Jackson

One of my first engineering assignment locations was at Santee Cooper’s Jefferies Generating Station, which included a hydroelectric facility. It was a beautiful place to work because of the strong design features and visual drama of the art deco architecture at the hydroelectric building.

The Jefferies Hydroelectric Station began operating in 1942 (as the Pinopolis Power Plant) when art deco was in-vogue. During the Depression era of the 1930s and prior to World War II, many federally funded hydroelectric projects, including the Hoover Dam in Nevada, were constructed to provide power to rural areas. This included the Santee Cooper Hydroelectric and Navigation Project, constructed from 1939 to 1942.

Their designs were heavily influenced by art-deco-inspired architecture. To this day, Jefferies retains its art deco design features and even the vibrant colors were repeated over the years each time the turbines were repainted. On King Street in downtown Charleston, the restored Riviera Theater is another great example of outstanding art deco architecture found in the Lowcountry. 

When originally constructed, the focus was on providing cheap and abundant power to rural areas, not on renewable energy. However, hydroelectric power is much more than attractive architecture and a reliable source of power. It was also an early renewable energy resource, well before solar and wind were considered common. Hydro has traditionally been the single largest renewable energy resource in the U.S. In 2017, it accounted for about 7.5% of the total U.S. utility-scale electricity generation and 44% of total generation from renewable resources. 

Because hydropower uses the energy from running or impounded water without reducing the quantity of water, it fits the concept of renewable energy. Additionally, the life cycle produces very minor greenhouse gas emissions and no sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide or mercury emissions.  

Hydro represents the largest renewable capacity in the U.S., with more than 100,000 MW. Public power owns and operates more than 20% of all hydro capacity in the country, largely due to the large hydro facilities built during the 1930s and 1940s. Nationwide, hydro accounted for 6.5% of the total generation based on 2016 megawatt-hours. However, for public power, hydro comprised 20.3% of the total generation (Source: American Public Power Association’s “2017-18 Public Power Annual Directory & Statistical Report”).

So, the next time you are admiring art-deco-inspired architecture, think about this long-lasting renewable energy resource that has provided power to millions of homes and people over the past century. 

Susan Jackson is the manager of the coal combustion produces and waste department at Santee Cooper. Her career has included power plant engineering, regulatory compliance and project management.

Editor’s note: This blog was originally posted on the Santee Cooper website and is reprinted here with permission.

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